The Memory of the Memory
The palace was the only building in Suldanesellar at a higher elevation than the temple, cradled in the branches of Rillifane's great Tree. This arboreal wonder was so vast none of them had really even noticed it thus far – its scale was such that the eye rejected it as a single entity, and chose to perceive it instead as multiple trees grown up together.
Demin led the way to the broad court platform that spread before the palace doors. There were benches, or rather smooth, shaped stretches of tree branch, scattered along the perimeter, and in more peaceful times, Maera could imagine it being a popular place to see and be seen, but now it was littered with debris, and marred with scorch marks. She looked about questioningly. The buzzing in her head was back, louder and more adamant than ever. It was as if her mind was reaching, stretching out desperately for the part that had been stolen. A tingling itch settled over her shoulders, and it was all she could do not to twitch them, like a flea-bitten dog. "What are we doing here, Demin?"
The Whiteleaf stood at the railing, staring down towards the rest of the city below. "We are waiting," she said. "The Leaflord has promised the aid of the forest. This will be over soon, and Elhan will come."
"Well…that's all well and good, but what's stopping us from heading on into the palace and taking care of Irenicus?"
"Maera." Demin turned, her face serene. The encounter with her god's avatar had obviously soothed the priestess's nerves. How nice for her, Maera thought waspishly. "I do not doubt your strength, nor that of your companions. But I would not have you rush headlong into an encounter with the Exile, not until we know the city is secure."
"Do I need to remind you that he's in there with your Queen?" Maera jerked her thumb over her should, barely keeping her words from becoming a snap of anger. "Your friend?"
"No, you do not," Demin responded coolly. "But we must have faith that we will be given enough time." She turned back to the railing, having given her last word on the subject. Maera heaved a sigh.
She closed her eyes, trying to convince the tension in her chest to ease, but she could not stop herself from gnawing anxiously on her thumb. She knew Demin was right. There was far more at issue than her own vengeance. The Leaflord had given her sanction to pursue Irenicus, but not just for herself. She was standing for the people of Suldanessellar now, and for their sake, she would have to wait. She hated waiting.
She felt a hand rest gently on her fist and opened her eyes, prepared to growl. But it was Kelsey who stood before her, and he raised his other hand to touch her face. "It'll be okay," he said softly.
She sighed again, and stepped close enough to rest her head against his. He released her hand, sliding his up her arm, pulling her close to him. "We are so close," she whispered. "I can feel him, Kelsey."
"I know. Just a little longer," he said. She tried her breathing exercises again, letting his familiar scent anchor her to reality. Whatever divine process had brought her into being, she was still human, and the world still made the most sense when understood through her five meager senses. Like smell, and touch.
He had pen calluses on his thumb, and the interior edge of his middle finger. She could feel them as he idly stroked her cheek, and she clung to the sensation. "I love you," she breathed. She felt him smile.
"I love you too." The smile slid away as he turned his head slightly to meet her eyes. "Whatever happens...please remember that."
She shook her head, never looking away from his eyes. "No," she said. "We're both still gonna be here when this is over, so you can tell me that again then."
He turned his head again, kissing first her cheek, and then her earlobe. "You got it, boss," he murmured. She smiled, and for a moment far too brief for her liking, nothing else mattered but the two of them.
A low rumble rose from the levels below, and they stepped apart. Imoen rushed to the railing beside Demin and clambered up it, leaning as far over it as she could manage. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "Is that a treant?" The Whiteleaf smiled.
"The Oak provides."
Nearer the palace doors, Jaheira had taken it on herself to attempt to tidy the platform, pushing the broken branches and other detritus into a heap. Minsc was proudly helping, using a discarded shield as an oversized makeshift dustpan. Maera smiled as she noticed them, and gave Kelsey's hand a squeeze before walking towards them, intent on helping as well. Perhaps action would make the wait more bearable. But halfway there, she noticed Solaufein sitting in thoughtful solitude on one of the benches. She had just decided to leave him to his thoughts and keep walking when he spoke. "So it was him."
She paused, and felt herself coloring. Her embarrassment was apparently evident; he stood, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "My apologies. I should have phrased that differently." He looked up at her, squinting in spite of the cloud cover over the sun. "I begrudge you nothing, Maera. You have done me no injury. What occurred in Ust Natha…" He swallowed, and looked to the side. "I admire you greatly, and I see no need to make a secret of that. And when we first met, that admiration might have…" He glanced back up at her, a vaguely sardonic smile playing across his face. "I suppose it is fortunate that Veldrin did not truly exist."
She looked at him with a blink of confusion. "Veldrin was me. I wasn't…I wasn't putting on an act. Not much of one, anyway. The only difference was…" Understanding brought another, fainter blush. "The illusion."
He chuckled wryly. "You are very tall. I don't think I could get used to it." She joined him in the laugh, and his smile grew unexpectedly gentle. It was a strange expression to see on a drow face, but it suited him. "He makes you happy."
She nodded. "Yeah, he does."
"You deserve that." He looked towards the palace. "Great things rest on you. You should take whatever joy you can from your life."
"Everyone should," she said. "Including you."
His smile slid from gentleness to one of familiar irony. "And perhaps I will. In time."
Kelsey sat on one of the benches, not far from where Demin and Imoen looked down into the city. The faint sound of combat drifted upwards toward them, and he took a deep breath. He had discovered early in life that much of one's time in the mortal realm was spent waiting for one thing or another, and even adventuring, that most exciting and action-filled of professions, was not exempt from this maxim. He glanced around; Minsc was dutifully scooping another pile of debris towards the first, under Jaheira's direction, and Maera and Soluafein were talking. He felt a sour spike of disapproval, which he hastily quashed. Don't be an idiot, Coltrane, he scolded himself. You can't fault him for having good taste. Imoen leapt down from her spot on the rail, keeping her feet like a cat as she landed. She came and sat near him on the platform floor, resting her back against his leg. The concept of personal space had absolutely no meaning to her.
"Just look at him," she commented, looking at Maera and Solaufein. "He's got his filthy paws all over her! You should go teach him a lesson."
"Ha ha." Kelsey gave her a flat glare. The top of her head made an awfully tempting target.
She glanced up and shot him a disarming smile. "You know I only pick on you 'cuz I like you, right?"
He had trouble believing that. "Lucky me." She made a face at him, before returning to a survey of the platform.
"Poor Mae," she said, watching her sister approach Minsc and Jaheira. "If she feels anything like I did when we faced down Bodhi, I bet her skin feels like it's about to crawl right off. And now she's having to wait on Elhan, too."
"She is awfully restless. I don't blame her, though, even if I can't really imagine how it must feel." A stray bit of leaf, blown along by the steady breeze, landed on Imoen's shoulder, and he brushed it off. "When you got your soul back, what was it like?"
Imoen continued to watch Maera in silence. Just when Kelsey began to wonder if she was going to answer, she said, "I'm having to think about it. It's hard to describe." She took a deep, thoughtful breath. "It was like…being in a city, in a really nasty part of town. All the gutters overflowing and it's hot and it stinks, but you've been there so long you're almost used to it. Then, poof!" She snapped her fingers. "You're teleported away, and suddenly, you're on a mountainside, and the air is so pure, it's like you've never breathed before. That's…kinda what it felt like. Does that make any sense?"
Kelsey nodded slowly. "Probably as much as it can."
A shout, and the sound of heavy footfalls, rose from the sloping walkway to their left, and they stood quickly, tensed and ready. Maera jogged to Demin's side, loosening Daystar in its sheath, but the source of the noise gave her no cause to draw it. Elhan, his armor splattered with dirt and gore, strode forward, flanked by a pair of equally untidy lieutenants. He stopped start at the sight of Demin, tired eyes widening. "Demin?" The General pressed a fist to his heart and dropped to one knee, his aides echoing the gesture. "Whiteleaf," he said, "we are at your service once more."
Demin heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, get up, Elhan. We don't have time for ceremony. The Exile is within, with Ellesime, and now that you're here, I feel confident in declaring the city secure." She raised an eyebrow. "The city is secure?"
Elhan stood, smiling. General and Whiteleaf had met, now they spoke as friends. "Do you not have any faith left over for me, Demin?"
"I will take that as a yes," she retorted, then glanced up at Maera. "Maera, the next move is yours."
"Give me ten minutes and I can provide them a detail..." Elhan's voice trailed off as Demin shook her head.
"This is Maera's task, given to her by Rillifane himself."
"They are not going in there alone!" Elhan objected.
"The Leaflord has charged her with this, General. Will you gainsay our god?"
Elhan ground his teeth and folded his arms crossly. Looking off to the side, he caught a sudden glimpse of the dark figure trying desperately to look inconspicuous. "A prisoner, Demin? Do you want us to dispose of him?"
He began to walk towards towards Solaufein, his face hard. Demin sidestepped firmly into his path. "He is not a prisoner," she said.
Those words, in that particular combination, made no sense whatsoever to the general. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that he is not a prisoner. He is here of his own free will. He stood with us in the Temple, and Rillifane spoke for him."
A muscle in Elhan's cheek twitched as he eyed Solaufein grimly. "You never were very good at jokes, Demin."
"I would that I were joking; this would be far more sensible then!" Demin snapped. "He did not come here in the company of the invaders, and while he has proven himself an irritant with a smart mouth, I cannot overlook what I have seen today. So you will stand down, General, and leave him in peace!" She glanced back at Solaufein. "You see? You are not the only one who suffers at my hands."
His answering smile was almost a smirk, but there was no hiding the relief in his eyes. "The Lady be praised," he murmured.
Maera stood in silence as the elves talked and finally, she held up her hands, fingers spread. "Okay!" she said, trying desperately not to simply turn and rip the palace doors off their hinges. "We have established several things: Elhan is here, and that's good. Solaufein is our friend, and that is also good. Now, please excuse me, I have an appointment in the palace and I don't want to be late." She swung on her heel, her party wordlessly forming up behind her. Demin called after her.
"Maera!" Maera stopped, but did not turn. "Rillifane go with you. We will be waiting," the priestess said. Maera nodded, and kept walking
As they came to the double doors, Maera's hand hovered over the handle. She let out a long, slow breath. "I…I just want to thank you all. For everything."
"Thank your companions when they do something extraordinary," Jaheira replied calmly, "not for something they would already do."
Maera smiled tightly. "Point, Jaheira. As usual." She pushed open the door. "Here we go."
Wherever Irenicus was, silence followed. Just as he had turned the babbling madhouse of Spellhold into a tomb, so here had he hushed the life that had existed in Ellesime's palace. The ubiquitous rustle and creak of leafy branches that were Suldanesellar's constant backdrop was strangely muted, and even the colors of the silk banners decorating the smooth walls seemed dim. A corridor led to the great hall that was Ellesime's throne room, where tree limbs stood like pillars and light filtered hazily through the crown of leaves that formed the ceiling.
There was another source of light – a web of glowing red that surrounded the throne, its stark, inorganic color shining vivid and unnatural in the gloom. Irenicus sat there, ramrod straight, hands gripping the arms of the throne in a claw-like grip. They started as they recognized him, but it was obvious he was elsewhere. His lips moved, but there was no sound. The sound of soft, wheezing breaths drew their attention to the back wall, beyond Irenicus's strange cage.
A woman lay on her side on a platform of tangled boughs. A curtain of heavy, honey gold hair half covered her face, and she was struggling to keep her eyes open. Maera cautiously skirted the throne, warily glancing behind her every few seconds. "No need to fear," the woman murmured, her voice slurred as though with exhaustion. "He cannot see you now. I'm afraid he is nearly finished."
"Are you Queen Ellesime?" Maera whispered.
The elf moved her head once in the affirmative and chuckled tiredly. "Not the most regal of settings, I know. My apologies for this somewhat…lackluster showing." Stringing together so many words at once seemed to be almost more than she could manage. Jaheira knelt beside her, but before her glowing hands reached the queen, Ellesime shook her head weakly. "You cannot help me, kinswoman." The druid stuttered at the appellation as Ellesime continued, stroking the branch nearest her with a limp hand. "It's the Tree. He's killing us."
"How do we stop him?" Maera's voice was terse.
Ellesime squinted up at her, forcing her eyes to focus. "You're like me, aren't you? You appear human, but you are not. Not wholly."
Maera cleared her throat, trying to avoid the queen's bleary gaze. "We'll just say that my father was not as benevolent as yours."
"Oh? How odd. We should speak of this later, if we have the chance." She did not seem to have the energy for surprise. "Your question…he's protected within the circle. He is pulling the power of the Tree into himself." Her breathing was shallow and labored. "He's almost done."
Imoen slowly circled the throne, surveying the complex ritual circle that surrounded Irenicus, shaking her head. "This is some top shelf ritual work. Can't just smudge out the circle. We do this the wrong way, we could blow up half of Suldanesellar." She puffed out her cheeks, exhaling heavily. "Ritual magic isn't really my thing, you know. Dynaheir never liked that. 'Theory is the basis of understanding. You have to know how it works to make it work!'" she said, mimicking Dynaheir's accented contralto.
Minsc started in amazement. "You sounded just like her!"
She shot him a quick smile, and tilted her head, eyeing the glyphs that lined the edges of the diagram. "Every circle has the point where it begins and ends. That's its weak spot…and the only place it can be broken that won't cause the energy he's diverted into himself to blow back on us."
"How do we find that spot?" Kelsey asked.
"Just have to trace the spell back to its beginning…" She shook her head. "Man, this is complicated."
"You're smarter than he is, Im," Maera said. "You can do it."
Imoen completed another circuit, mouthing the words spelled out by the glyphs. "I think…I think I understand how he did this. He's basically using this circle as a plug. The power that should be radiating out from this spot through the whole city is being stopped here. And diverted directly into him." She glanced at Irenicus's form. "You tricky son of a bitch." She backtracked halfway around the circle, to a spot at his left hand. "It's here." She glanced up at the rest of the party. "Get ready. He's not going to be happy when I break this. And explosion is still an option."
She raised her hand, and a jet of flame burst from her open palm, scorching the floor, the symbols melting away as the wood burned. The light vanished, and a roar of wind shook the hall. Irenicus's eyes snapped open as he thrust himself to his feet. "No. No. NO!" He swung his head about, enraged, and his eyes narrowed as he recognized them. "So. You. I should have known. Not content just to haunt my steps, you push and you push, you upstart insect! I have studied, I have planned! I set my vengeance in motion before your very birth!" he bellowed. His wrathful eyes fixed on Maera, who shook with equal fury. "Why won't you just DIE?" He raised his hands, everyone tensed to strike–
Irenicus turned slowly to face Ellesime, who was in the process of pulling herself to her feet. She sagged against a branch, leaning heavily, and she panted with the effort, but her green-gold eyes were clear and focused. "Don't call me that," he said flatly.
"What shall I call you then?"
"I have chosen a name that pleases me."
"Somehow I do not believe anything pleases you now."
He barked a humorless laugh. "And whose fault is that, Ellesime?"
"I do not deny I was a fool," she said, stiffening. "And that my foolishness was born of love is all the more galling in hindsight."
Irenicus cocked his head, gaze fixed on her. "Love. You say that as if it should mean something to me. I look at your face and I know that I loved you once. But I cannot remember what that felt like."
"I can." Ellesime stared back at him, ever as tears spilled down her cheeks. "I remember it all. Far better than I wish to. I remember the joy of seeing you smile and knowing I was the cause of it. I remember the pleasure of losing myself in our time together, feeling like we were only people in the world. I remember that you loved me for myself." She began to walk towards him slowly, a hand outstretched. "Is there anything of Joneleth left in the man before me? Look at what you've done here and tell me it is not meaningless to you!"
He reached out and seized her hand, turning it over in his grasp as though seeing it for the first time. Ellesime continued to stare at him, her jaw clenched as a welter of emotions blazed across her face; guilt, sadness, anger, and even the faintest trace of pity. Irenicus remained silent, looking at the slim hand in his. "On the contrary, " he said finally. "It is very meaningful indeed." He opened his hand, and her fingers slipped from his. "You should have killed me then, Ellesime," he said. "Then, I cared. Then, it might have meant something. Now? Now there is no room for regret. The years have sharpened me into a weapon. All I am now is vengeance. You talk of love, but you have no one to blame but yourself for what you made of me."
"My gods," Maera scoffed. "Listen to yourself." Irenicus whipped back around to face her. "Your little soullessness problem is your own damn fault." She stabbed a finger at him. "She may not have had you executed, and she'll have to answer to herself and the entire city of Suldanessellar for the rest of her life for it, but you were the one who decided revenge would make it all better. You don't get to pass this off or play blame games. You transgressed against your god, and you got spanked for it. And instead of accepting that, you come roaring back like you're owed something. Well, you're not. Nobody in this room owes you a single, godsblighted thing. Is what happened to you really worth the lives you've taken, and the people you've hurt? Short answer? No. Long answer?" She drew her sword, and the smooth leathery whisper of it leaving its sheath was loud in the utter silence. "Hell no."
Behind her, Imoen's bow creaked. "Seconded."
"Motion carries," Kelsey said.
Irenicus's strange face was still. "Obviously, failing to kill those who have earned it is a theme in this bizarre little play of ours. Ellesime may have been too soft-hearted with me, and I was too self-assured with you, but unlike her, I will be rectifying my mistake shortly."
"How arrogant must you be," Jaheira said, her voice deadly soft, "to think you can do what you have done to us, and face no retribution?"
"Minsc and Boo have his retribution," the ranger declared. "It is called a sword, and he will be introduced to it!"
Maera never took her eyes from Irenicus. Her mind was ablaze, and her skin felt electric. She could feel her soul, locked away inside him, straining to be free and return to its proper vessel. The Slayer shadows clamored in her head, hissing eagerness and anger, but she felt the same calm that had overtaken when she faced Bodhi. The buzzing was gone. Peace at the center, she told herself, raising Daystar. "Ellesime. You should get out of here. This is about to get very messy."
The air around them crackled with magical energy. Even under her jerkin and gauntlets, Maera could feel the hairs on her arms rising. "Do you really think you can defeat me, girl? I have within me the very thing that made you special."
She felt herself sneer. He had underestimated her from the beginning, and that would be his undoing. "Bodhi had an extra special soul too, and look what it got her."
His expression didn't flicker. "Trying to bait me? That's a futile tactic."
"Why waste the energy? I'm just stating the obvious."
It felt good to launch herself at him, to let Daystar sing in the air. She could see their faces in her mind; his victims. Aran Linvail's Shadow Thieves and the inmates of Spellhold, used as fuel for his rituals as casually as one tossed another log on a fire. The innocents of Suldanesellar; men and women widowed, children orphaned, homes and lives destroyed. Even the drow of Ust Natha, played for fools in their desire to lash out against their ancient foes.
But most of all, she saw the ones she'd lost at his hand. Khalid, so gentle and unassuming that one could forget him, faced with the force of Jaheira's personality. But it had been that very meekness, the heart of his sweet-natured soul, that had made him so endearing. He was perhaps the most genuinely good person she had ever met. And Dynaheir - aloof but kind, she had borne Minsc's eccentricities and oddities with patient affection. Wearing her brilliance like other women might a gown, she had nurtured the seed of magical talent in Imoen. If only she could have been there to see how far her student had come.
And Yoshimo. Poor Yoshimo.
She had to give Irenicus credit. He was very good. Juggling the five of them, blocking a blow from Minsc, absorbing a spell from Kelsey, firing off another at Imoen, and all without flagging. She knew of very few battle mages with that sort of reflexive focus, and had seen fewer. It was impressive. Or it would have been, if it weren't impeding her efforts to kill him. No matter. He would run out of magic eventually, and she could outlast him. She had to.
Grunting, she ducked to avoid another burst of fire from his hand, grinning harshly as she saw one of Imoen's counterspells had punched another hole in his shield. She dived for the opening, slashing him low across the chest. Minsc crowed as he too landed a blow, which sent Irenicus stumbling, blood oozing from his side. The mage swore as he lost his footing, but rolled to his feet again, shields glowing with fresh intensity. Jaheira shouted the final word of an invocation with triumph as she raised her staff over her head and lightening arced through the leaves of the Tree and struck him, piercing his protective magics.
With the fury of a mountain flood, an exhalation more triumphant than any Maera had ever felt before washed over her. It was here, her soul reaching out, catching at the edges of her, like fingers tugging at loose threads. She had him, by the gods, and he could not escape her. All his cunning, and he could not beat her.
Irenicus dropped to one knee, pressing his left arm to the wound on his chest, his eyes afire. "Fools," he panted. "Do you really think you can win? I will not have it. I WILL NOT!"
He raised both arms, howling an incantation. His shields glowed fiercely, keeping at bay any attempt to silence him before its end. As the words rose to their climax, Irenicus's body began to glow, and for an instant, Maera thought she saw the shadowy shape of the Slayer surround him. But she only had an instant, because in the next second, fire exploded around them, and the world disappeared in a colorless haze of heat and pain.
Suddenly, she was aware again. She was conscious of her body, of hands and feet and aching head. Pressing her fingertips to her temple, she heaved herself into a sitting position and opened her eyes. "Where the he-?"
Everywhere, hot, bare rock, carved in grotesque shapes, a heat shimmer dancing in the distance. The air stunk of sulfur and other, fouler odors, and underlying it all was the metal sharp tang of blood. She sat at the base of a tall pillar, but as she looked more closely, she realized it was a statue. A very familiar form rose before her, the shining black rock glinting in the dull light, and she knew exactly where she was.